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Non-neutral Jonker Lions issue spills over into Rugby Championship

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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It’s a good job that Lions boss Warren Gatland has nothing to do with the 2021 Rugby Championship or he would be asking hard questions of the decision by World Rugby to have South African touch judges on duty for the Springboks’ upcoming two matches versus Argentina. 


The Lions were left fuming that there was no plan B by World Rugby to ensure a neutral official was on standby if any of the team of officials appointed for the Lions Test series became suddenly unavailable for whatever reason. 

While Australia’s Nic Berry, New Zealand’s Ben O’Keeffe and France’s Mathieu Raynal, the three-strong group appointed as the series referees and touch judges, arrived in South Africa without a hitch and have remained healthy since then, New Zealander Brendon Pickerill was unable to travel for the Lions series after his appointment as the television match official. 

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Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper look ahead to the Wallabies Bledisloe Cup opener versus the All Blacks
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Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper look ahead to the Wallabies Bledisloe Cup opener versus the All Blacks

However, rather than have another official from overseas on standby to fly in, World Rugby instead opted to appoint local South African official Marius Jonker as TMO, a controversial decision that has contributed to the fractious Test series that has unfolded and resulted in a bruising few controversial weeks for the sport. 

World Rugby insisted that the teams knew it was always likely that the contingency would be non-neutral, and that was communicated for all Test games across a challenging June/July window. It was also believed the Lions were informed of Pickerill’s non-availability shortly after World Rugby were informed, not a week later as alleged by Gatland last Tuesday. 

Whatever the ins and outs surrounding the appointment of Jonker, the controversy hasn’t dissuaded World Rugby from the use of non-neutral officials as they have appointed South African AJ Jacobs as touch judge for the August 14 Springboks versus Argentina match in Port Elizabeth that will be refereed by Ireland’s Andrew Brace.


They will then double down on this the following week at the same venue when two South Africans, Jacobs and Marius van der Westhuizen, will both be touch judges for the round two Springboks versus Pumas rematch refereed by England’s Karl Dickson.

The non-neutral pattern is repeated in the Bledisloe Cup/Rugby Championship meetings between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. This Saturday’s game in Auckland sees Paul Williams referee and lead an all-New Zealand team of officials as he will be assisted by Mike Fraser and Pickerill with Glenn Newman on TMO duties. The following weekend’s Rugby Championship rematch will again see the all NZ team in action but with Pickerill as the referee, Williams and Fraser as assistant referees and Newman as TMO.

A statement read: “The cross-border competition organisers and World Rugby continue to adapt and action contingencies due to the evolving and challenging global pandemic. Travel for the teams and match officials, along with quarantine requirements, has resulted in a combination of neutral and non-neutral appointments for the fixtures.”



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